Two legal items were reported on the same day last week, which led me to fear that the UK is moving towards the culture wars that disfigure debate in the US.
The first was the announcement of a supposedly right-wing attack dog (a culture wars phrase), Chris Grayling, as the new justice secretary. This was welcomed in some quarters as a sign that the government would seriously begin to roll back the powers of the European court of human rights. For instance, Mr Grayling has been quoted as saying that he does not want votes for prisoners, which is the current ‘cause célèbre’ of the Tory right against the court.
On the same day as this was being chewed over by the newspapers, the Financial Times reported that the UK government has drafted a letter which it hopes other member states will sign to block a proposal by the EU justice commissioner, Viviane Reding, to introduce quotas of 40% for women in the boardroom. The letter apparently notes that ‘individual countries are already addressing the issue through voluntary or mandatory programmes, and insists that the EU refrain from meddling in national efforts’.
Without undertaking an academic treatise on the topic, I regard the defining feature of culture wars as being a debate about subjects that are not central to the role of government – gay marriage, abortion rights, and in this context prisoners’ votes and quotas for women in the boardroom – which are then introduced into governmental discussion as if a whole range of other categorising beliefs go with them. The following question soon follows: are you for or against? Depending on your answer, you are either a treacherous terrorist-lover or a hysterical warmonger. But this overlooks that most people hold a mix of views from both sides’ lists.
I know that, just as two swallows don’t make a summer, two minor incidents from the legal field don’t make a war. I should not exaggerate. Nevertheless, I detect a trend – encouraged by right-wing bloggers – to turn our discourse into the ‘with-us-or-against-us’ rhetoric of the US. Britain is not there yet, and the debate in this country is still at a civilised level, despite the efforts of commentators in some newspapers to raise the temperature.
Let us keep it that way. These issues are not important enough to become defining positions when the country is teetering on bankruptcy, and there are vital debates to be had on health, housing... and legal aid.
(To add a little red meat on the subject of quotas for women in the boardroom - on which it seems to me that there can be two perfectly respectable and opposing positions, without the need for either side to become agitated about the other’s views - it was also reported last week that commissioner Reding will table a proposal later this year that will fine or otherwise sanction state-owned companies whose supervisory boards are composed of less than 40% of women by 2020. Apparently the commissioner does not wholly support the idea of quotas herself, but believes them to be necessary to break gender imbalances.)
As for the culture wars, I for one will give attack dog Grayling a chance to prove himself on the real issues in his portfolio, such as legal aid and prisoner numbers, whatever I think of his pronouncements on less important matters so far. It will be difficult; I will be tempted to write him off before he does anything, but this chilling alternative of a descent into the culture wars will keep me on my best behaviour.
Jonathan Goldsmith is secretary general of the Council of Bars and Law Societies of Europe, which represents around a million European lawyers through its member bars and law societies. He blogs weekly for the Gazette on European affairs